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Compensatory Calories: Why being too nice to yourself might be ruining your health kick.

You know how it is. After years of sitting behind a computer at work and sitting in front of a tv in the evening, you start a new fitness regime. So you join a gym, work out every day after work—and three or four weeks later, it’s made no difference at all. This could be down to compensatory behaviour.

Sound familiar? Or maybe you’re already a few months into a new health kick, and you feel the time is right to start to up your game. So you start going for a run first thing in the morning every day before work. Or you manage to fit an extra gym session into your lunch hour. Or you stop off for a spinning class or a half-hour swim on your way home, alongside all the hard work and dieting you’re already putting in. But still, after three or four weeks, you’re seeing no difference.

You’re just not losing as much weight as you’d like, or as much as you were before you upped your game. You might even find that you’ve stopped losing weight altogether—or worse, have started putting it back on. Sure your fitness is getting better, but that weight loss goal you’re aiming for is still frustratingly out of reach despite all the extra time and effort you’re putting in. Discouraged and annoyed by the whole thing, you give up and fall back to your old ways. So what’s happened?


No matter whether you’re only just starting out on your health kick or are well into a good fitness routine already, one thing you’ve got to be careful of is compensatory behaviour.

In terms of fitness, “compensatory behaviour” refers to all the “rewards” we give ourselves after we know we’ve worked hard. If you’re just starting out and are only just beginning to get used to adding a workout to your day-to-day routine, these “rewards” are often conscious decisions made with the best intentions. But if you’re already well on the way to achieving your goals, your rewards might be more subconscious than conscious—but no less detrimental. 


Here’s how it works. An average-sized person working away at a good pace on a cross trainer for half an hour might burn somewhere in the region of 250 calories. They’ll work up quite a sweat in the process, and knowing that they’re doing something good might come home and give themselves a well earned reward. After all, that ice cold can of lager or that tail end of a bottle of wine at the back of the fridge isn’t going to drink itself, is it?

The problem is that that can of lager probably contains somewhere in the region of 170–180 calories. A glass of wine contains roughly the same, if not a bit more. One of those half-size cans of Pringles? 207 calories (that’s 9 calories per crisp!). A slice of cake? The best part of 250. And steal a slice of pizza off your other half’s plate as a reward for all your hard work, and you could be adding somewhere in the region of 300 calories to your daily total—enough to make sure that despite that half hour in the gym, you’ll have gained weight by the end of the week never mind lost it.

For beginners taking their first steps into a health kick, compensation like this is an easy trap to fall into. It’s only natural to feel like you’ve earned something by working so hard. Add to that all the mixed messages sent out by diet and fitness plans that do allow healthy “cheats” or “rewards” in exchange for days or meals when you stick to your plan, and it’s easy to see how, if you’re not careful, that hour down the gym can all too easily be undone in your first 5 minutes back at home!



Even seasoned gym users or pro fitness fanatics can fall foul of compensatory behaviour and see their improvements tail off or slow down when they start to push themselves harder, or make changes to their well-established routine.

If you’re a fitness fanatic, of course, you’ll already know that rewarding yourself with a well-deserved pint or a slice of pizza isn’t exactly the best idea after an hour in the gym. But your compensatory behaviour might not be as obvious as all that.

Studies have shown that people making changes to an already established fitness regime—like adding a morning run every day before work—are more likely to fall foul of subconscious compensatory behaviour later in the day.

Why? Well, for example all that extra effort in the morning might lead to you doubling your breakfast or lunch portions because you’re so hungry. Or after that early start, you might find yourself flagging later in the day—at which point you might start taking the lift at work when you would once have used the stairs, or hopping on the bus home when you would normally walk.

Looking for a boost of energy, you might find yourself resorting to an energy drink or a can of pop from the vending machine. Too tired to cook something fresh and healthy in the evening, you might just grab something quick from the back of the cupboard or freezer. And when the alarm goes off an hour earlier than you’re used to the next morning, the whole thing starts again.

Suddenly all that extra hard work just isn’t worth the trouble…



So how do you beat it and avoid the overcompensation trap?

Well, no matter how fit and healthy you might already be, adding something like a half hour run every morning before work is a big step. So try staggering the changes in to your routine instead. Start off with a morning run or a lunchtime gym session only two or three days a week at first, and see how things go from there. Or, if you’re adding an extra evening class to your routine, why not switch a midweek run or a weekend cardio session for a light weights session, or just some much-needed active rest—even an hour’s stroll round the park or down the beach will do.

Remember too that if you’re going to up your fitness game, you’ll need to give your body the extra fuel that it’ll need to get through it, and avoid that feeling of running on empty the next day. But if you do find yourself flagging or feeling like you need to refuel, try to opt for something quick, energy-packed, and nutritious—a banana, or a handful of nuts or dried fruit can give you a much-needed boost of natural sugar. And try not to cut down on the day-to-day healthy choices—like taking the stairs instead of the lift—that can quickly add up across the week.

Looking for some quick, easy & healthy recipes?

Fruit & Out Muffins Recipe. A great healthy breakfast or an energy-packed snack when you’re on the go.

Baked Egg Muffins Recipe. A quick and healthy breakfast, lunch or snack throughout the week.


If you’re just starting out and are finding your fitness regime failing before it’s even begun, however, try ignoring the impulse to reward yourself after your gym sessions for a few weeks to see if it makes a difference. But if you really do need to reward yourself, remember moderation is the key—balance out the calories you’ve burned down the gym with the calories in your reward and decide whether it really is worth it…



If you find that you’ve read this blog through and it’s all hit a bit too close to home, remember one thing: don’t be too hard on yourself.

Compensatory behaviour is perfectly natural—it’s only normal to want to reward yourself after hard work!—and hopefully you’ve seen how easy it is to fall into the compensatory trap. Even the most seasons fitness fanatics are often guilty of it.

So here’s some final points the remember:


  • If you’re making any kind of change to your lifestyle or fitness routine, don’t expect to see changes immediately. It can take 2–3 weeks for you to see any kind of improvement on the outside while your insides are reaping the benefits of all that extra exercise and healthy eating. But if after that much time you’re still not seeing the benefits, think about where you might be compensating yourself, and see if cutting back on those rewards might help things along…


  • Don’t forget how important food is as part of any health kick—both in terms of rewarding yourself after a workout, and fuelling yourself beforehand. There’s no point in burning 300 calories down the gym, then eating 400 calories afterwards because you think you deserve it. But at the same time, you’ve got to remember to fuel your body correctly beforehand to keep those cravings at bay.


  • And remember: there’s nothing at all wrong with rewarding yourself! If you’ve worked hard, by all means give yourself a reward—just try to keep it healthy, nutritious and beneficial, and try to keep the treats in moderation.


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